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The reading gap is widening in Prince William County elementary schools, according to new testing data obtained by InsideNoVa through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The fall 2020 semester saw a dramatic increase in elementary school students failing to meet the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS), with the number failing to reach target benchmarks over the fall 2019 semester increasing by 16 percentage points and all but three of 59 elementary schools seeing their numbers rising.

When broken out by ethnicity, the numbers show a growing achievement gap. All groups performed worse on the assessment, but Hispanic students have fallen behind the most since the start of virtual learning.

For Hispanic kindergarteners, the percentage of students identified as in need of PALS intervention jumped 23 points from 2019. In first and second grades, the number rose by over 17 percentage points. In the fall 2020 semester, more than half of Hispanic kindergarteners and second-graders were identified as needing additional instruction.

Black students saw increases of between 6 and 11 percentage points across grades K-2. In fall 2020, the percentage of students needing intervention were 24% (kindergarten), 23% (first grade) and 31% (second grade). White students showed slightly higher increases in the numbers needing help, 9 to 12 percentage points, but still scored slightly better than Black students.

Meanwhile, the percentage of Asian students needing intervention grew from 13% to 26% in kindergarten, 10% to 18% in Grade 1 and 18% to 23% in Grade 2.

A feature of the state’s Early Intervention Reading Initiative, PALS screening is provided to school districts through a contract with the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education Development. For students identified as needing additional help, schools create PALS intervention plans.

Overall, significantly more students were tested this fall than in 2019, because testing isn’t typically mandatory in the fall. Because of the change to virtual learning in the spring, the district wanted to test each student to set new baselines. Additionally, the testing window for kindergarten students occurred four to six weeks earlier than in a traditional year, according to a note from district staff attached to the data.

Kindergartners returned to in-person learning on a hybrid basis Nov. 10, and first graders went back to classrooms at the start of December. Second- and third-graders returned to some in-person instruction this week, although in all cases parents could opt out.

The division’s communications office declined to make anyone available to speak with InsideNoVa about the PALS data, but the division-wide drop in scores was a topic of discussion at the first school board meeting of the year.

Nathaniel Provencio, the associate superintendent for Eastern District elementary schools, said PALS was one of a number of data points used to assess student development, though he declined to say whether the other metrics also showed an increase in students falling behind.

“The PALS data is one data point, a very important data point, but it is one data point that we utilize. Not only do we use that, we use [developmental reading] assessments to gain an insight on students’ overall reading ability. We have writing assessments that we utilize,” Provencio said.

Division Superintendent Steven Walts also read a message from Latiesa Green, principal at Potomac View Elementary School in Woodbridge. She said the school’s PALS tutor was working with small groups, using videos to guide reading instruction, and employing professional development strategies for teachers.

“The economic and linguistic diversity of our school population has always been an area of focus for us, especially in literacy development,” Green’s message read. “As a result of the pandemic and specific changes that have accompanied this challenge, the staff and I anticipated more struggles in this area and have been utilizing the initial PALS assessment to highlight and target areas our school staff can focus on as we transition to synchronous and asynchronous learning.”

Division staff also told the school board that the assessment was one thing, but the response to students needing intervention is just as important.

Provencio said his daughter was receiving PALS intervention and said he’d been impressed with the way her strengths and weaknesses were identified and addressed. Jarcelynn Hart, the associate superintendent for Western District elementary schools, called the PALS system in place in county schools a “well-oiled machine.”

“I feel really good about the work that’s happening with PALS in our schools,” Hart said.

“I do think it’s mindful of us to keep in mind that our youngsters left in March, so they didn’t finish kindergarten. They didn’t finish first grade. They didn’t finish second grade,” she added. “So they’ve come back trying to fill those gaps and to grab on to what’s important right now. We can all agree that nothing will replace in-person teaching.”

But Board Chair Babur Lateef, who has advocated returning students to in-person learning faster, said he wants to make sure the board is being kept apprised of what other assessments in reading and mathematics were indicating.

Lateef has pointed to the PALS numbers as evidence that children should be back in schools, calling them “very concerning.” He told Walts and others that the division should be smart about how it spends new money from the federal government, using it to attack problem areas specifically.

“We have a lot of students that are not hitting benchmarks they’re supposed to be hitting,” Lateef said at the Jan. 5 board meeting. “I am very anxious as a school board member of the fact that we have to deliver results to our students and to our families. And virtual or in-person, we are condemned in this pandemic one way or another, so it’s not ideal.”

Jared Foretek covers the Manassas area and regional news across Northern Virginia. Reach him at jforetek@insidenova.com

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Jared Foretek covers Prince William County Public Schools, the city of Manassas and transportation news across Northern Virginia. Reach him at jforetek@insidenova.com

(4) comments

George Lawton

Just give us more money though. That’ll solve every problem, every year it gets worse and worse. Remove your children from these people.

Change Craford

Brad, Why don't you volunteer to help children read instead of playing the political game? Trump and his incompetent administration blew controlling the virus and look at how many people have died and how many more will be because you ignorant to true facts supports won't wear masks.

Brad London

This is the direct result of failed democrat "leadership". First supporting illegal immigration to the max. Second, closing schools when the science shows that there is virtually no covid risk from in person schooling. And ironically Trump was right all along about keeping schools and business open. Florida kept everything open. CA shut down everything. Both have similar results.

Lynne June

This is a no-brainer, especially for primary, special education, and ELL youngsters.

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